Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s attitudes toward her adultery are ambivalent. This ambivalence is shown by breaking the book into three different parts. In each part her attitudes change significantly.
Hester starts by seeing her act as a sin that she is sorry for committing. She changes and no longer feels sorry for the sin. Finally, Hester sees the act as not sinful, but she regrets committing it.
In the first part, covering the first six chapters, Hester thinks of her action as a sin. In chapter four she tells her husband that it was her fault for committing adultery when she says, “I have greatly wronged thee” (79). In chapter six Hawthorne writes that Hester knows “her deed had been evil” (92). This evil deed, in Hester’s eyes, causes Pearl to act sinful, so Hester feels overwhelming guilt. At this point Hester feels that her actions were evil and were her fault, therefore she is sorry for committing adultery.
In chapter five Hester’s attitudes are the same but Hawthorne shows that these attitudes are not stable and are susceptible to change. Hester moves to a cottage on the outskirts of Boston, but because her sentence does not restrict her to the limits of the Puritan settlement, Hester could return to Europe to start over.
She decides to stay because she makes herself believe that the town “has been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment” (84). This belief gives the impression that she views her action as a sin and feels a need to further punish herself. But this belief only covers her actual feelings.
To the contrary, as Hawthorne describes, her real reason for staying is that “There dwelt, there trod the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make their that marriage altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution” (84). This comment means that the real reason for her staying is that Reverend Dimmsdale, the father of her child, lives there and she hopes to someday marry him.
Hester believes that her adultery was a sin, but the book makes it clear that she enjoyed it. Consequently, Hester to sees herself and everything she enjoys, such as sewing, as sinful. She continues sewing, though, which seems to symbolize that she would commit adultery again. Hester also shows some anger about her punishment.
She believes that there are others who have committed adultery but have not been caught because they were in different situations than Hester. Hester’s changing attitudes reveal that while she sees her act as a sin, she believes her punishment was unjustified, even though she pretends to be punishing herself even more.
In the second part of the book, Hester’s views change: she is no longer sorry for what she has done. Hester’s mood changes “from passion and feeling to thought” (158). Instead of seeing her act as impulsive, as an act of passion, Hester now inwardly decides that the act was not such an evil sin, and she is not sorry for committing it.
She shows that she thinks the act she and Dimmsdale committed was not evil when she tells him, ” What we did had a consecration of its own”(186). The Scarlet Letter was supposed to remind Hester and the townspeople of her sin and make her sorry about her act, but as Hawthorne writes, “The scarlet letter had not done its office” (160).
Hester goes beyond her punishment and helps the poor, making the townspeople feel that the scarlet letter stands for “able” rather than “adultery” (156). This causes the townspeople to start to think the “A” stands for angel instead of adultery. Hester’s progression from passion to thought leads her to conclude that the adultery was not evil but beautiful, therefore there was no reason for her to feel guilty anymore.
The third part of Hester’s development is found in the last chapter. Hester is an old woman who is now looked upon as an advisor. At this point in her life, she does not see her adultery as a sin, but for the sake of womanhood, she is regretful that she did it. She knows that someone will “establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (245).
Hawthorne describes that Hester had earlier thought of being the “prophetess” of this changing relationship. Yet now Hester “recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with lifelong sin” (245). This shows her recognition of her impurity and that she would have liked to have been pure so that she could have changed womanhood.
Throughout the book, Hester’s attitudes are hard to read. She outwardly portrays Puritan feelings and attitudes but is merely hiding what she is actually feeling. She moves from showing only Puritan attitudes, seeing her act as a sin, to showing her inner thoughts, not seeing her act as a sin. She does, however, regret the adultery at the end because it damaged her and she feels she could have brought more to the world if she had not committed the act. Hester went through many struggles to finally show her inward feelings and deny the Puritan beliefs.
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